Green Line riders will catch a glimpse of Twin Cities history

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2014 - 7:21 AM

When Green Line trains roll next Saturday, riders will glimpse a fragile landscape of Twin Cities history.

At 2429 W. University Av. stands a square, two-story brick structure, with minimal decorations. It was built in 1909 to print the Twin City Commercial Bulletin, a retail trade journal.

Few who pass would give it any thought, except for one detail: the stone letters MINNEAPOLIS on the left side of the building, and SAINT PAUL on the right.

You can’t help but think it straddles the border. What would that be like? If St. Paul police arrived to arrest you, could you run to the Minneapolis side? Is there a dotted line down the middle of the staircase? Whatever the story, you’re glad it’s there to tell you when you’ve left one city and entered the other.

Except it’s not really on the border.

Look it up on Google Map Street View: No boundary line says Minneapolis over here, St. Paul over there. Street View says “Minneapolis” at the SuperAmerica on Bedford Avenue, and “St. Paul” right in front of Hubbard Broadcasting’s big red KSTP letters. In between it just says “University Avenue, Minnesota, USA.”

As if it belongs to no city at all, and both at once.

Some streets are destinations: Hennepin. Some are showplaces: Summit. Every town has a University Avenue, a practical road with unlovely expanses, small treasures, lost stories, a great silent chorus of history bound up in the bricks. A working street.

But not every town has one that draws a broad line between two downtowns, bearing the same name at each end. A newcomer sitting in the Green Line train when it begins traversing this route next Saturday could easily see the sights outside the window as a long, plotless movie, just another old street past its prime, due for a juice of transit mojo. Easy, and wrong.

It was always a street that took the temperature of our urban health. Let’s look back and hear what it says about where we were, and where this new train might be taking us.

A journey down University Avenue is a trip back in time, but it’s a jittery jump from one decade to another, often in the same block.

If the original plan had been followed, it would be located to the north, tying the University of Minnesota to Hamline University.

All together now: That’s why it’s called University. Makes sense, no? But this grand idea was thwarted by construction of some rail yards near the U, so the name was bestowed on the artery we call University today.

Just another street at first, there were grand plans for an elegant, broad boulevard tying the towns together in urbane perfection.

Didn’t happen. Rarely does. It grew up without a plan, a stretch of road more useful than beautiful, the route of the Twin Cities’ first inter-urban trolley. Its sole purpose for most people: to get you from here to there.

But along the way were a thousand reasons to stop.

Take your time, see the sights

Some reports say the new train will take nearly an hour to get from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul, but that’s not all bad. You’ll have time to look out the window and study how the decades knit themselves together in a long braid of brick and glass.

A postwar drive-in, the remnants of a 1970s Embers, a World War I-era factory. Near Hwy. 280 stands the old International Harvester assembly building from 1915 — once a place where tractors were put together, now offices. Move east: new residential units in the Chittenden and Eastman building, decorated in the style of Louis Sullivan.

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